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Source Materials for Fishing in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

Source Materials for Fishing in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

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Published by oldenglishblog
"Source Materials for Fishing in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages" by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen, a paper delivered at HMAP-Mediterranean Workshop, Barcelona, 20-23 September 2004
"Source Materials for Fishing in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages" by Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen, a paper delivered at HMAP-Mediterranean Workshop, Barcelona, 20-23 September 2004

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Published by: oldenglishblog on Feb 28, 2011
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Source materials for fishing in antiquity and the early middle ages
When Poul Holm first mentioned the idea of extending the timescale of the HMAP project all theway back to antiquity, my immediate reaction was that it sounded pretty hopeless. It is a well-established truism that in ancient history, there are few quantitative data and even fewer timeseries.
For the same reason, ancient economic history as a discipline tends to focus on patterns of behaviour, socio-economic questions and so forth, rather than on economy in the “hard” sense, andhas for the last thirty years been dominated by the so-called “primitivist” paradigm.On closer reflection, the idea did not seem so absurd after all. While the sources that we have for fishing in the medieval, early modern and modern periods are much better, they are not first-handdata. No one has actually counted the fish in the world’s oceans. What HMAP strives to establish isreliable information on a) marine animal populations and b) the impact of human activity, i.e.harvesting of marine animal populations, but in practice the evidence for a) is indirect and largelyderived from b).Once we accept that applying indirect evidence is legitimate and necessary, it may be possible tomake some meaningful statements about ancient and early medieval fish stocks. Instead of searching for ancient parallels to the fishery statistics, tithe-books and tax records of the earlymodern periods – a waste of time, since such records are not preserved and probably never existed – we should look at all possible approaches to the problem and all possible sources.
Literary sources
One reason that medieval and more recent fishing is fairly well documented is that fishing wassubject to taxes and tithes.
Unfortunately from our viewpoint (but not from that of the fishermen)there seems to have been no systematic taxation of sea fishing in the Roman Empire,
nor, which isperhaps more surprising, in the Byzantine Empire. The fiscal administration of Byzantium was  
The leading scholar within ancient quantitative economic studies has been Richard Duncan-Jones (
The Economy of theRoman Empire
, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974;
Structure and scale in the Roman economy
, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1990) but his work, based on an exhaustive search through the extant sources, actuallyreveals how little we know about the quantitative aspects of the ancient economy.
Cf. Joan Alegret’s contribution to this conference
See, e.g., Peter Ørsted: Salt, Fish, and the Sea in the Roman Empire, in Inge Nielsen and Hanne Sigismund Nielsen(ed.),
Meals in a Social Context 
(Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity, 1).  Aarhus: Aarhus University Press,1998, pp. 13-35.
detailed and intricate, in one word, Byzantine; but sea fish was one of the few resources that did notcome within its scope.
While quantitative data are lacking, in qualitative terms the sources at our disposal can tell us agood deal about ancient fish stocks in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. First, species. Whatspecies were present? The data pertaining to this question are in fact quite detailed. One needs onlyto consult one of the two standard handbooks on the subject, d’Arcy Thompson’s
Glossary of Greek Fishes
or Strömberg’s
Griechische Fischnamen
to appreciate the range and detail of ancient fishnomenclature, reflecting the detailed knowledge of ancient fishermen and the vast number of references to fish and fishing that are scattered throughout classical literature.
For a general impression of ancient fisheries and fish stocks, the best starting-point is the
of Oppianus, written in the late second century AD. The
is a didactic poem of more than3,000 hexameters, preserved in its entirety and supplemented by an ancient prose paraphrase whichthough only partially preserved helps us to decipher the somewhat intricate poetic language of thepoem itself. The recent been edition by Fritz Fajen with a German translation is in many respects animprovement on the older edition of A.W. Mair in the Loeb series.
Oppian’s book is no first-hand report, rather a digest of second-hand and third-hand information,but it provides us with an overview of migration routes, seasonal variations, and other aspects of direct interest to HMAP. If one were to try and locate the literary references of d’Arcy Thompson or Strömberg on a map of the Mediterreanean and correlate them with the information given byOppian and in the
Natural History
of the Elder Pliny, it might provide us with a good impression of which fish species were present where and at what time. It is a quite simple exercise that, to myknowledge, has not been attempted so far.So far, I have considered only surces purporting or attempting to describe the contemporarysituation, i.e. the state of fishing in the writer’s own lifetime or the recent past. I have ignored thosethat are “historical” in the strict sense, i.e. those that purport to tell us about
fishing or comparepast conditions to those of the writer’s time. On the face of it, such evidence may seem highlyuseful; in fact it is, however, largely anecdotal and, at best, based on second or third handinformation, hearsay and the writer’s own memory. Furthermore, there is the problem of what we  
See, e.g., Franz Dölger,
Beiträge zur Geschichte der byzantinischen Finanzverwaltung besonders des 10. und 11.Jahrhunderts
, Stuttgart: Teubner, 1927, esp. pp. 12ff.
d’Arcy Wentworth Thompson,
A Glossary of Greek Fishes
, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947; ReinholdStrömberg,
Studien zur Etymologie und Bildung der griechischen Fischnamen
, Gothenburg: Wettergren and Kerber,1943
Oppian, Colluthus,
Tryphiodorus, with an English translation by A.W. Mair (Loeb Classical Library), London:Heinemann, 1927; Oppianos,
, edited and translated by Fritz Fajen, Stuttgart: Teubner, 1999.
might call
the mythical baseline
. When writers describe life in an earlier age, certain idealisingthemes recur. Young people were better behaved; the forests were more extensive; fish was soabundant and cheap that everyone could afford it. This may be based on solid evidence; if may bebased on anecdotal information; or it may merely reflect a shared ideal about a “golden age” in thepast.
Pictorial representations
Now, the works of Thompson and Strömberg cited above deal only with the textual sources, butthere is a considerable body of pictorial evidence for ancient fish and fishing. Our pictorial evidencefor fishing comes very largely from mosaics, not necessarily because mosaics were the onlymedium used to depict fish, but because they are a more durable medium than, for instance, wallpaintings or painting on wood. For late antiquity and the early middle ages, this evidence issupplemented by manuscript illustrations, and for the high middle ages by sculpture and frescoes.Again, to my knowledge no attempt has been made to collect and this material and analyze it in asystematic manner, for instance to attempt a detailed identification of the fish that are depicted inthe pictorial evidence, or to study their spatial distribution. For instance, it is well known that fishand fishing scenes are especially popular in North Africa during the third and fourth century; butwhy?
Fish remains
A third category of sources, that deserves more attention than it has so far received, is the actual fishthemselves. Fish bones and other remains have been recorded at innumerable sites in theMediterranean-Black Sea region, and at a substantial number of sites there are rubbish dumps andpits, the contents of which can be – but rarely are – dated and systematically analyzed.
The mostambitious attempt in this direction of which I am aware is Natasha Ivanova’s study of fish remainsfrom the Greek colony of Olbia and the settlement on Berezan island in the northwestern Black Sea.
Among the findings of Ivanova were a drastic change in the composition of fish catches (andthus presumably fish stocks) from antiquity to the present day. This will come as no surprise toHMAP researchers and marine biologists, but runs counter to what is still the prevalent orthodoxy  
In 1996, Desse and Desse-Berset noted that „osteometry has not been systematically applied to fish bones fromarchaeological sites“.
Natasha V. Ivanova, Fish remains from archaeological sites of the northern part of the Black Sea region (Olvia,Berezan),
51 (1994), pp. 278-83.

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